Springsteen in Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1975 via Backstage Gallery.

Can Music Save Your Mortal Soul?

Margaret Dunn
Human Parts
Published in
3 min readAug 21, 2023

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Don McLean’s 1971 “American Pie” brims with lyrical genius. The kaleidoscopic allegories for life in the sixties are accompanied by the twang of a guitar and set together by the tap of the drums. It is an Americana anthem, embodying empowerment and wistful loss — an archetype of rock and roll that transcends the counterculture movement in which it was given life. In the fifth stanza, Don asks two questions, the first being “Do you believe in rock and roll?” and the second, “Can music save your mortal soul?”

I know it can. It saved my mother.

It is a funny thing, realizing, at eight or nine years old, that your parent had a life before you. I sat in the backseat of my mother’s Volkswagen, mindlessly playing with the window button as we drove through the back roads of Montauk, when she suddenly turned up the radio.

“I was there! I was there!” her voice quavered as she slapped the leather of the steering wheel to the beat of one of Springsteen’s live concerts. After a few seconds, she pulled over, burying her head in her hands.

I did not understand why she was crying then. I do now.

I strung, and continue to string, pieces of my mother’s upbringing together as if I were weaving a tapestry. I used to approach this dissection like I was crafting stained glass, cutting each fragment, each story, into a precise shape, desiring for it to instantly settle in its place with the other slivers. I soon realized that stained glass was too difficult to handle. It required precision, and I struggled incessantly to rework these shards until they fit an image of the woman in my mind.

Thread, however, can be tied in knots and still be beautiful. Encompass the complexities and contradictions while being riddled with overlaps and loose ends. Still beautiful, just like my mom.

The weaving begins in the suburbs of a small town in New Jersey. Among manicured lawns and picket fences lay a house entangled with gnarled weeds and overgrown grass. Inside lived two parents, divorced and despising each other, but neither had the money to move out.

Since twelve years old, my mother sought refuge in the songs of Springsteen and the other rock gods of the age, clutching the bulky radio tight to her chest as she fell asleep just to drown out constant bickering.

Led Zeppelin’s “All My Love” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” resonated with a young girl entrenched in darkness. Their lyrics invoked a certain poignancy, one that taught her that her pain was not invalid, not something to be ashamed of, while illuminating that tribulations are universal. She analyzed the poetry, jotting down the lyrics on the back of old photographs, seeking reprieve in not only their rhythm but their rhymes as well.

Songs like “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” brought her to life, carving her out of the dense woodwork of anguish and silence. Enveloped into the jovial, uplifting melodies, she was free of her adversities for at least a few minutes, purely exalted.

These songs were not only her primary comfort but the catalyst for her work ethic and subsequent departure from that small, New Jersey town. She lived in the houses of friends during her junior and senior year of high school, spending the evenings at the library, her head buried in books. The weekends were spent at Friendly’s, working as many hours as possible in order to afford college tuition, and, of course, tickets to Springsteen concerts. Rock and roll reverberated over the ice cream flavors and poured out of the windows of her jalopy van during the ride home. It saved her. It was the lifeboat as torrents of wind and rain raged around her. It provided the oar she used to reach smoother waters.

As I now watch my mother and father dance around the kitchen while making dinner to “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic,” I know my answer to Don’s first question.

I believe in rock and roll.

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